Brewing without GMOs

I’m one of those slackers who is generally opposed to GMOs in the food supply, while assuming that most everything in the food supply these days is GMO. So I garden, cook a lot, and aim for organic when I shop, but ultimately, money is an object and – personal motto here – nothing’s perfect. So I’ve been brewing for a long time without specifically researching what I’m putting into my beer, in part because I expected the news to be bad.

I know a lot of people consider this view superstition, but when you look at how little testing has been done and how agribusiness has treated farmers who’ve had their fields polluted by GMO pollen, it’s tough for me to feel good about GMOs entering the food supply. Because of this, I’ve long worked under the assumption that European-sourced ingredients – where GMOs are generally disallowed – are a better choice than US, but as I research further, my concerns about exotic genes in the US grain supply are easing. (Corn and soybeans are the glaring exception.)

Here’s the US Department of Agriculture on wheat:

“Genetic improvement has been slower for wheat because of the grain’s genetic complexity and lower potential monetary returns to commercial seed companies, which discourage investment in research. In the corn sector, where hybrids are used, farmers generally buy seed from dealers every year. However, many wheat farmers, particularly in the Plains States, use saved seed instead of buying from dealers every year. In addition, U.S. food processors are wary of consumer reaction to products containing genetically modified (GM) wheat, so no GM wheat is grown in the United States.”

According to this European Union site, there are zero approved GMO applications for barley, the primary brewing grain for beer. That’s global, not just EU countries.

Which brings us to corn, adjunct and source of so many sugars in the food supply today. That little baggie of priming sugar in your homebrew kit? Corn sugars, as is pretty much every soda you drink and the sugars in most processed food. The bad news is that the vast majority of the US corn crop is GMO (in the 90% range) and that GM corn is grown in the EU, so if you’re into reducing your impact, you’ve got to shop specifically for clean corn sugars.

Seven Bridges carries organic, GMO-free brewing ingredients, including dextrose for priming.

Corn is wind pollinated, so a neighboring field of GMO corn can contaminate a clean crop, and the pesticides used on the US corn crop have been implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees. At this point, commodity corn just strikes me as a massive catastrophe, both from a legal standpoint (Monsanto suing farmers who don’t buy their seed), an ecological standpoint (dead bees and weird genes everywhere), and a huge dietary problem as our food supply is pumped full of massively processed sugars extracted from corn.

With our All Thumbs brew, we used a few ounces of extra light dried malt for priming. I’ve also been reading up on kraussening and similar approaches, where some wort is saved from the batch, with or without yeast, and then added back to the bottling bucket for priming.

In any case, the good news is that the wheat and barley in your brew aren’t GMO, and there are plenty of options for replacing modified corn sugars with organic or even alternative sugars.

I’ll take a look at organic options for brewers, especially with hops, in another post.

30 Seconds of Bubbling

Yesterday we brewed a Belgian IPA we called Hop’s End. I’ll write up a brew log in a minute so you can see the recipe, our procedure, and mock our errors (but mock gently, so others may gently mock).

Spyke worked out a closed blow off system that – if nothing else – is neat to watch. I could theoretically run the tubing anywhere in my house and watch the airlock bubble. Here’s 30 seconds of that, as well as some of the chaos inside the vessel as primary fermentation begins.

Activity Blogging

Today your intrepid bloggers will be repairing the steps leading off of my back porch, which have begun to rot in a way that is dangerous. Spyke, who does things like carpentry, will be by around 1, and our first stop after the assessment phase will be Ale Yeah, followed by Lowe’s.

Probably not a lot of posting today, but tomorrow’s brew day, so we’ll have some multimedia as we brew up a red IPA.

Honorable Mentions

Thanks to John Cole at Balloon Juice for dropping us a mention yesterday. I’ve been reading his site for many years, and when I was first starting to brew, found the Beer Blogging (occasional) feature over there really helpful. Largely because Tim F., one of Cole’s co-bloggers and the homebrewer in the bunch, had such a smart and relaxed attitude about the process. So many of the websites and books aimed at the novice brewer make brewing sound incredibly daunting and almost certainly doomed to fail. Tim F. made it seem fun, challenging, and creative.

There’s much more available from Tim F. under the Beer Blogging category at Balloon Juice, but I think his “A Homebrewing Guide For The Perplexed” is one of the more practical documents available on the web for the newbie or would-be homebrewer.

Today is Trash Day…

And look what I have here:


I recently replaced my old, rusting grill and was preparing to move the old one to the curb this morning when a moment of inspiration hit me. The hardly used side burner might just make a great burner for brewing. I guess I’d better learn welding soon!

The Porter Turns Four

Nestled into a long, narrow space in Atlanta’s Little Five Points, you can find a real treasure on the thoughtful craft beer front, with a terrific, locally-focused menu beside it. The Porter Beer Bar is always an experience, and September marks four years in the space.

Creative Loafing interviewed co-owner Molly Gunn, and I think her comments on Georgia’s legal situation are well worth repeating:

I’m looking forward to the emergence of a crowded local beer scene in Atlanta. I hope that one day we can rival Asheville and San Diego as great beer towns. I think many folks would agree that further relaxation in Georgia alcohol laws would also be a boost to the beer scene. Everything from the complex and long process of label approval to the still limiting ABV laws stand in our way of becoming a true beer destination.

As I’ve been working through some of the launch-glitches with this site, I’ve relied on input from friends near and far, and I’ve been asking what type of information they’d like to see on a site devoted to beer and brewing. Because many live in states with a better legal framework around alcohol than Georgia has, I’ve had to explain that there are certain avenues the site just can’t pursue because of the potential for legal problems.

What we have in Georgia is an accidental collusion between distributors with a near-monopoly on what comes into the state and the narrow, stingy brand of faith practiced by our large population of evangelicals, many of whom appear to seriously resent Atlanta (for our freedoms?).

At the same time, we are living in a time of increasingly relaxed liquor laws, and our legislature (which increasingly relies on home rule to save itself from having to make any hard decisions) understands that Georgians want access to more of the world’s great beers.

In 2004, the 6% ABV limit was lifted (my understanding is that the owners of Decatur’s Brick Store Pub were instrumental in achieving this victory), and in 2010/2011 we saw growler sales approved, with credit going to the owners of The Beer Growler, which got its start in Athens, opened a second location in Avondale Estates, and is now up and running all around metro Atlanta. Last year, municipalities in the state voted on whether to allow Sunday package sales, and Georgians again overwhelmingly opted to make their own choice about what and when to drink.

So if you live here, understand that this state is in the middle of a small revolution when it comes to great beer. The next time you drop in at The Porter or the Brick Store or any of Atlanta’s other great beer destinations, raise a glass to that.

Do you see this line?


So our weather has jumped from summer to autumn in the last couple of days, and temps inside my house have gone from upper 70s in late afternoon (turned AC off a week ago or so) to low 70s during the day and down to low 60s overnight (I love open window season). Anyway, I often marvel at the weird layers that develop in a carboy over time, and the geometries of yeast halos in the hour or two after pitching a healthy batch. Spyke texted me one day to let me know that one of the brews at her house had developed clear striations on a rainy day. Atmospheric pressure? It’s as good an answer as any. As for this, it’s the pear wine I photographed with the sun behind it yesterday morning. I think the lower temperatures are helping various solids to drop out of suspension. It’s like having a five gallon weather monitoring station in my dining room.

FailBrew: Diary of a Bad, Bad Beer

I thought it might be fun – for you, not for me – to take a look at the long, strange tale of a beer I made recently which has caused me no end of trouble.


You sir, are a dick.

It was July, and a friend had issued invitations to her getaway weekend celebrating her 30th birthday. I’m… older, but really value the friendship we have, so I happily accepted. She asked if I’d be interested in brewing a beer for the occasion, and off I went.

I picked up a kit for Brewer’s Best English Pale Ale. As I mentioned in another post, my small, cramped kitchen and electric (not gas) stove make all grain brewing unrealistic in my house, so I stick to extract and partial mash and – usually – make some pretty great beer with it.

My friend Sirkka joined for the brewing of what we named “English as a Second Language Pale Ale,” which swapped out the Fuggle hops for Cascade and added two pounds of honey with 15 minutes left on the boil. (While we brewed, we drank Magic Hat’s summer mixed pack – great stuff. You know, by the way.)

Oh, how I would come to regret that honey.

The fermentation kicked off normally but never quite died down. After a couple of weeks, I transferred ESL to secondary and dry hopped it on  Willamette. I figured the agitation and oxygen would give it a little boost and finish it off. I was wrong. Activity in the airlock continued. Weeks passed.

My friend’s getaway was scheduled for the second weekend in September, and as September neared I realized I was in trouble with her beer. I assumed the problem was the honey, which can take a really long time to ferment fully, so with a couple of weeks to go, I decided to take extreme measures. I pitched a packet of Montrachet wine yeasts into the carboy with a B-vitamin to pep everything up, then crossed my fingers that in the next 48 hours, 72 at the most, ESL Pale would finally die.

But ESL Pale did not die. Airlock activity picked up, then dropped off again, but ever so slowly it continued bubbling.

With a little over a week to go, I put my cooler\mash tun on a chair, put the carboy in, and filled the cooler with ice. Over and over and over again. I cold crashed it for three days, then bottled it without priming sugar. Since I knew (or suspected strongly) that it was still fermenting a bit, I had to check the bottles for carbonation. Each morning, I’d open one bottle and then cap it again. In the evening, the same with another.

I thought it would carb rapidly and on its own, risking bottle bombs to have a nice fizzy beer for my friend’s birthday trip.

But of course, ESL Pale didn’t care what I thought. It stayed flat, with an overly dry flavor and a syrupy mouthfeel.

A few days after returning from the trip, I opened a bottle. A slight hiss, but basically no carbonation. Beyond frustrated now, I googled for sugar-to-bottle ratios and weighed out a requisite amount, then boiled it into a 1:1 mixture with water.  I uncapped the entire batch, all 30-some bottles, and used a giant syringe (minus needle) to inject 3CCs into each one. Then I recapped them, packed them onto a shelf, cursed the day I started brewing, and went about my business.

Last night, maybe ten days after the syringe craziness, I opened a bottle to see if anything had changed. When I poured it – more roughly than I usually would – it built a small but promising head of foam on it, which quickly dissipated. The flavor is still drier than I’d like. It still tastes like some idiot threw wine yeast and B vitamins into a perfectly good beer, but that’s mellowed, and there’s definitely a good kick to it, maybe in the 7% range (based on my highly scientific, “Would I feel comfortable driving a car 15 minutes after drinking this beer” test. The answer: No.)

So that’s the story of English as a Second Language Pale, a beer that required far too much manipulation and will end up being okay, I think, but never great. If there hadn’t been a clock on it, it might still be sitting in secondary, bubbling once a day, and I wouldn’t care. I like to let a beer sit until it’s well and truly done, and then let it sit a while longer. I’m certain that most of the problems in the world are caused by people being motivated by the wrong things, so I’ve decided that laziness can be a virtue in its own right. Since most people object to the glorification of laziness, I just tell them that my beers are “aged on lees.”

Some may call it patience, but I’ve come to believe that the secret to great home brewing is really just simple neglect.